Chapter 2: Preliminaries - The line up and Rann of Kutch
- Category: The India Pakistan Air War of 1965
- Last Updated: Sunday, 09 June 2013 04:21
- Written by P V S Jagan Mohan & Samir Chopra
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Following the defeat in the China war, the Indian Govt. gave a free hand for the development of the Armed Forces. The Army got the maximum benefit from the expansion. It raised ten new Mountain Divisions, increased its armour strength and re-equipped its troops with new infantry weapons. The Indian Air Force, as mentioned earlier got more transport aircraft and better radar facilities, but its fighting element remained virtually the same, consisting of Vampires, Ouragans, Canberras, Gnats and Hunters all of them either British or French in origin.
Of the fighters, the Vampires and Ouragans were outdated. The Vampires equipped about nine squadrons which included two PR Squadrons. The Vampires were no match to any aircraft in the Pakistani Air Force. It couldn't catch the B-57s even in level flight. And it was useful only as a ground attack aircraft which could be used only where air superiority was assured.
The same was the case with the Ouragans. Known as the Toofani, about 104 of them were acquired in 1954. This straight winged fighter was a first generation fighter, like the Vampire could be used only in a ground attack role. Four squadrons, Nos. 4, 19, 29 and 47 flew the Ouragan and all of them were stationed in the north-east facing the Chinese.
When in 1955, Pakistan began to receive the Sabres, the IAF looked towards the Mystere IV-A, which looked like a scaled up version of the Ouragan. It was primarily an interceptor. Inducted in 1956, it enabled IAF pilots to go supersonic, though only in dives. It was slightly faster than the Sabre, but was less maneuverable and sluggish in the interceptor role.
It was more suited for the ground attack role, armed with two 30mm DEFA cannons and a rocket launcher pack in its belly which could carry up to 55 rockets. This was in addition to the 900 kg of ordnance it could carry. Though useless as a fighter it was to prove more than its worth as an air interdictor. Of the 110 aircraft originally purchased, about 80 of them flew with five squadrons, Nos. 1, 3, 8, 31 and 32. All of them being in the Western Air Command.
The true air defence component consisted of the Hunters and the Gnats. Each one an excellent aircraft in its own right. The Hunter was the true equivalent of the Sabre. With 16 rockets in addition to its four cannon, it could double as a ground attack role too. Only three squadrons, No.7 Battle Axes, No.20 Lightning and No.27 Flaming Arrows played a major role in the war. The rest being with Eastern Air Command or in other parts of the country.
At the end of 1962, only two squadrons were equipped with the Gnat, No.23 Panthers and No.2 Winged Arrows. The latter being less than six months old. In 1962, the No.9 Wolfpack Squadron was raised and in addition to the three squadrons, No.18 was in the process of formation when the war broke out. The three squadrons, flying this midget fighter were untried and untested in action. No other air force in the world flew this aircraft or any other coming close to the midget fighter concept.
The IAF was the only air force to employ this concept, the Gnat flew in large numbers only in India. Elsewhere it was employed in a trainer role. The Gnat's very size was its main asset. It was difficult to spot and it's weight was half of its contemporaries. It was more agile and its rate of turn, and the tightness of the turn were unmatchable. It's Rolls-Royce engine gave it a speed 50 miles faster than the Sabre at higher altitudes. This advantage gets negated at lower altitudes and as it happened most of the dogfights took place at lower altitudes.
The bomber component of the IAF was made up the Canberra, an excellent aircraft in its own class. This bomber was the equipment of Nos. 5, 16 and 35 Squadrons. Flying from Agra, these twin-engined bombers could carry up to 3.5 tons of ordnance. Each Canberra had a two man crew consisting of a pilot and a navigator - sometimes a three man crew with two navigators. It was the only aircraft capable of undertaking night missions. The darkness of the night was its main ally.
Before the 1962 China war, India has been looking for a supersonic fighter to counter the F-104 Starfighter that the Pakistani Air Force has inducted. Three fighters were under consideration, the French Mirage III, the American F-104, and the Russian MiG-21. The deal for the fighter was to include license production of the aircraft, and the IAF put up the Mirage III as its choice. However its price-tag and the reluctance of the French to let it be manufactured in India made it prohibitive. The US refused to give the F-104 without any political strings attached and this left only the MiG-21 as the contender for the IAF's choice.
The cost of the MiG-21 gave it a definite edge over the others. The terms of payment and the license for local manufacture were appealing. The MiG-21 was inferior in performance to both the Mirage III and the Starfighter. But the then Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon chose the MiG-21.
A deal was negotiated for the supply of one squadron and the setting up of factories at three places, Nasik for airframe, Koraput for engines and Hyderabad for its avionics. At the time of the deal, the US Ambassador made a last ditch attempt to prevent the deal by an offer of a defence package of supersonic fighters and heavy lift transports. The offer of F-5's was turned down.
The first MiG-21s did not arrive until 1963. No.28 Squadron was raised, aptly named, First Supersonics. They were equipped with 12 MiG-21F (NATO Fishbed-C) imported from the USSR. The MiG-21F is in sharp contrast with today's MiG-21bis, the latter looks definitely more bulkier and heavy while the former was slim and sleek.
The MiG-21F was only a basic design, which was not yet developed into a potent fighter of the latter years. It was a short range interceptor with provision for two air-to-air missiles. The IAF didn't have any missiles so on its insistence a 23mm cannon pod was fitted to the aircraft. This cannon was fitted externally and this proved a drag on its agility.
The squadrons practice and training was going on uninterruptedly till one fine day in December 1963. Two of the MiG-21s collided in mid-air at Adampur AFB and the training schedule grounded to a halt. Another MiG-21 was written off later and the squadron was still working up at the beginning of 1965. We had little benefit of the MiG-21s during the war.
Air Marshal Arjan Singh's command was divided into three regional commands, Western, Central and Eastern commands. Western Air Command was the most elite of all the three and was earlier known as operations command. In 1959, Eastern Air Command was set up and the Western Air Command got its present designation only in 1963, when Central Command was raised. Its area of responsibility extended from Ladakh to Jamnagar. It included Punjab where the main IAF bases were located.
Earlier Halwara and Ambala used to be the main bases. Adampur and Pathankot were developed as a part of the expansion program. The mainstay squadrons flying the Hunters, Gnats and Mysteres flew from bases in Punjab.
Outside Punjab, Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Jamnagar in Gujarat were the only bases in operation. Both were home to Training Est., Jodhpur to the Air Force Academy and Jamnagar to the Armament Training Wing. Then there was Agra AFB, situated deep in Uttar Pradesh and home to the Canberras. Western Air Command (WAC) was commanded by Air Vice Marshal Rajaram DFC, who had previously served as the DCAS and AOC-in-C of Eastern Air Command (EAC).
Eastern Air Command was relatively a young command formed in 1959. It had its HQ at Tezpur. After 1962, new air bases like Baghdogra, Hashimara, Chabua, Khumbhirgram, etc. were developed. EAC had some Hunters, but mostly it had Vampires & Ouragans as its mainstay, since its main area of air operations was to be against the Chinese Air Force who were much worse off than the IAF in terms of equipment and infrastructure. These aircraft could perform with relative impunity. One of the EAC's main drawbacks was that it lacked good radar coverage. This was supposed to be compensated with setting up of observer posts along the border.
In 1965, the Pakistani Air Force was a powerful fighting machine. It had the resources to take on the numerically superior Indian Air Force and hold to its own ground. But less than a decade back it never posed a threat to the IAF. It's equipment consisting of vintage Sea Fury fighters and Halifax bombers. Some Supermarine Attackers formed the jet force but these were never a match for even the Vampires or the Ouragans of that time. This situation underwent a drastic change in the mid-50s.
After 1955, Pakistan realigned itself with the United States and joined the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Under the treaty, the United States as a part of its Military Assistance Program supplied the Pakistan Air Force with the latest in hardware. The Pakistan Army was modernised with the supply of infantry weapons and tanks. The Pak Armoured Corps got about 400 M-48 Patton tanks and 200 M-24 Chafee medium tanks.
In 1956 the Pakistani Air Force received 120 F-86 Sabre jets. The Sabres were at that time the fastest and the most powerful aircraft in the sub-continent at that time. It was the first in-production aircraft to break the sound barrier and it proved its worth in the Korean War. Some 24 of these Sabres were armed with the AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles at the time of the 1965 war. The Sidewinder missiles themselves had a reputation with their performance with the Taiwanese Sabres against the Red Chinese MiG-15s in 1961
Also received were 32 B-57 Martin Canberras, the American copy of the British Canberra. The only modification being the redesigned cockpit in which both the pilot and the navigator sit in tandem under a fighter style canopy, both of them having ejection seats, unlike the Indian version in which the navigator lacked the ejection seat. In many cases, the pilot of a doomed aircraft would be reluctant to eject unless he made sure his navigator could bale out safely, by taking the aircraft to a higher altitude. Sometimes the stricken Canberra would not respond and many a brave pilot died trying to stick with his navigator.
Perhaps the most welcome addition were the dozen F-104 Starfighter interceptors, which had arrived in 1961. Then there was nothing in the Indian Air Force to match it. When it first flew in 1956 the press had dubbed it, 'missile with a man in it'. It was a most apt description, it was needle nosed and 't' tailed, a pair of stubby wings, it looked quite revolutionary for that time. And its performance was unrivaled by any other fighter. Its wings were exaggeratedly thin and some edges so sharp that they had to be covered with felt on the ground to prevent people from injuring themselves.
The plane could fly at the twice the speed of the sound, up to 1320 miles per hour, and climb 50,000 feet in just 60 seconds. But like all high performance fighters of today, it lacked in maneuverability. It would be folly for it to engage a Gnat in a turning dogfight. At lower altitudes, a Gnat could fly rings around the Starfighter. Nevertheless it was a powerful opponent armed with a 6-barreled gatling type Vulcan cannon and Sidewinder AAM's. The PAF received 2 twin seat trainers in addition to the dozen single seaters, and in combat these could operate just as efficiently. Thus with 120 F-86 Sabres, 32 B-57s and 14 F-104 Starfighters the PAF could field a total of 166 front-line combat aircraft.
The PAF had inherited a network of airbases from the pre-independence British establishments and these were made into a network of airbases situated forward and deep. The most famous of these being the Sargodha complex. Situated miles from the Indian border between the Jhelum and Chenab rivers, it was the most important airbase for the Pakistan Air Force. It was defended by good ack-ack and radar warning protection.
Other important bases include Peshawer, Kohat, Mauripur and Chak Jumrah. These bases were well covered with radar and AA guns. The Pakistani coordination of their fighters guided by ground radars was formidable. As demonstrated on 10 April 1959 when an IAF Canberra strayed into Pakistani airspace and was shot down by a PAF F-86 near Rewal.
The PAF was under the command of Air Marshal Asghar Khan for over eight years, from 1957 onwards. He was the Air Chief under whose tenure that the PAF underwent all its expansion, re-equipping, and training programs.
While the Indian Army was generally poised for action of a defensive nature rather than an offensive nature, Pakistan's Armed forces were prepared for a quick, though limited offensive and were deployed closer to the border. With boundless self confidence, aggressiveness & euphoria, Pakistan had indulged in creating trouble by inducing clashes on the border. The first of these clashes came about in November 1964, when both sides fought fiercely in the Tithwal sector, suffering severe casualties.
In the beginning of 1965, an election was staged in Pakistan and Ayub Khan the dictator, emerged as the elected President. Ayub Khan took this mandate as a morale booster and gave the go ahead for the plans to escalate hostilities.
When trouble did come , it came in the remote dusty corner of Kutch. Kutch has acceded to India at the time of Independence in 1947 and the then standing border was legally the International border. But the Pakistanis had for some time laid claim for more than 3500 sq. miles of territory in the Rann of Kutch, north of the 24th Parallel disregarding the old border between Kutch and Sind, and it was in this area that they decided to divert the attention of the Indians.
The Pakistanis started encroaching on our territory by setting up posts. Constant police patrolling on both the sides of the border led to clashes and build up of tension on both sides. To counter any Pakistani offensive, a brigade group was moved to Bhuj in March 1965. This was joined by another brigade group after a major clash occurred on April 8th. Opposing them were one Pakistani Infantry Division and two Armoured Regiments. And events flared up in the early hours of April 24th.
On this day the Indian post at Point 84 was attacked by enemy armour and mechanised infantry. The post was over run by noon. Next in line was the company strong post at Biar Bet. The attack came two days later when they were faced with a strong Pakistani force of tanks and a battalion of Infantry. As the battle was going on, the Army HQ requested the IAF to fly a reconnaissance sortie over the battle area to find out what the Pakistanis were deploying.
The nearest IAF base was at Jamnagar, on the Arabian Sea coast. A PR Vampire of No.101 Squadron took off from this base that morning, Fg. Off. Utpal Barbara was the pilot. He had been briefed to look especially for tanks. He flew across the desolate region with no land marks to distinguish. Navigation would be difficult. He then managed to find the battle area where he spotted some enemy armour.
Fg. Off. Barbara made a second pass identifying the tanks as M-48 Pattons, started taking pictures. He flew as low as 50 feet above them and by doing so was in danger of stopping an artillery shell from the ground duel going on. In spite of some machine gun fire directed towards him, he accomplished his task and flew home to base.
The pictures taken by Fg. Off. Barbara were much useful. It proved that the Pakistanis were using their American supplied weapons against us.
We derived maximum mileage from the pictures, even though Pakistan alleged that the pictures were fabricated. For his role in the Kutch operations, Barbara was awarded the Vir Chakra.Barbara's flight had many interesting sequels. One was that it alarmed the Pakistanis to a great extent, for them the lone Vampire was a prelude to a massive air offensive by the IAF. There was much scrambling in asking for air cover, and to reassure the ground forces two F-104 Starfighters were flown over the disputed areas.
Another was that the PAF Air Chief, Air Marshal Asghar Khan contacted Air Marshal Arjan Singh with a view not to let both the air forces to get into the clashes. Asghar was no stranger to Arjan. He had been the squadron commander of No.9 Sqn in the undivided Indian Air Force before the partition, when Arjan Singh was one too.
In the meeting with Arjan Singh, Asghar Khan said that if the Indian Air Force attacked the Pakistani ground troops he would retaliate by attacking the IAF's bases in Punjab. Asghar Khan arranged this communication in the belief that the PAF was at a disadvantage in Kutch (it was not) and he did so without taking either the Pakistani Army Chief or his superior President Ayub Khan. For this lapse, he came under a lot of flak from his critics and he defended himself by attributing the non committal of the Indian Air Force in the clashes to his not so veiled threats to Arjan Singh.
But the real reason that the IAF didn't intervene was that by April 28th, the Indian Government had taken the decision not to let the clashes escalate into a full fledged war. Arjan Singh has since then refuted the charges that he was deterred by Asghar Khan's threat and retorted that in Punjab, he could and prepared to, as he was, to take on the PAF and reply in the same coin. The only reason that the IAF did not get into the fighting was that it was in its best interests to keep out of it.
Asghar Khan's meeting was uncalled for, as apart from the governments decision to de-escalate the situation, it wouldn't have deterred the IAF if they wanted to get into the fighting. As it happened later in September, the IAF got into the fighting knowing fully well that it would lead to escalation of the crisis. So Asghar Khan's meeting didn't serve any purpose.
It is puzzling that the PAF Chief was ready to escalate the fighting on his own. There is no doubt that if airfields in Punjab were attacked, full fledged war would have come in April instead of September. That Asghar Khan did so without contacting the Pakistani Army Chief, General Musa or his President Ayub Khan is incomprehensible.
Maybe he knew that if he told either of them of his planned meeting it would have remained just that, a plan, as Pakistan was not ready for total war yet. Whatever may be the reasons, Asghar Khan did not remain the Air Chief for long. He retired in July and was succeeded by Air Marshal Noor Khan.
The decision on April 28th led both sides to come to the negotiating table and talk. A cease-fire was agreed on May 1st and by June the de-induction of troops was agreed upon by both sides and so was the delineation of the border. The month of May did see some more severe fighting in the Kargil region, and here too differences were resolved bilaterally. While Pakistan presented one side of its face at the talks, the other side was busy organising the plan to liberate Kashmir, under the codename, Operation GIBRALTAR.